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Bar and bat mitzvah planning

Cantor banter: Cleverly hand out honors

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

I’m getting ready for my daughter’s bat mitzvah and we have a big family. My temple will only let me hand out a few honors and there’s no way I can fit everyone in. Help!

—Stressed Out

Dear Stressed,

This is one of the most nerve-racking decisions you’ll make when planning a bar mitzvah service. It’s right up there with remembering to seat Aunt Gertrude as far away as possible from Uncle Marvin, which is a mistake you don’t want to make if you plan on getting your security deposit back. Ultimately, I’ve got three words for you: Witness Protection Program.

OK, you were probably looking for something a little more helpful, weren’t you?

During a bar mitzvah service, you will probably have the opportunity to honor some of your family and close friends. This might include having your chosen people called to the Torah for an aliyah, asked to open the ark, or to do a Hebrew or English reading.

Yet, your temple may limit how many of these honors can be distributed by that week’s bar mitzvah family. It seems like an inconvenient policy, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

Each temple has a finite number of honors that can be distributed each service. If your synagogue has a bar or bat mitzvah service almost every week — and if they allowed the families to hand out every honor they desired — then any regular temple member who happened to attend services would never be able to have an honor. It’s traditional, for instance, for a person coming to services on the anniversary of a family member’s death (yahrzeit) to get an aliyah. Moreover, synagogues sometimes honor a visiting guest or scholar with an honor. So it’s certainly reasonable for them to say, “You can hand out these honors, and the other ones are for us to hand out.”

So, get creative.

Depending on your temple’s rules, sometimes you can kill four people with one ark (figuratively speaking, of course). That is, you could honor two couples (i.e. Bubbie Ida and Grandpa Irving, Cousin Esther and her husband, Adam) with just one ark opening by putting one couple on each side of the ark. Furthermore, many synagogues will allow you to call couples or even small groups to the Torah for a single aliyah, so with some clever planning, you can knock off all the aunts and uncles in one fell swoop. If you have any non-Jewish relatives or close friends, there might be an English reading set aside that would be appropriate. It’s always worth asking.

Yet, all loopholes aside, my advice is to keep it simple. It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of feeling you have to publicly display adulation for every friend, neighbor, babysitter, and piano teacher (“This is Stan, our mailman. He’s been like a cousin to me…”) with honors when really, you should limit them to just your closest family members.

The one person who should really be honored is already standing on the bimah.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at

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